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Tourney talk has Terps abuzz; Facing Jackets today, UM eyes strong finish


ATLANTA -- Gary Williams walked into the Maryland basketball media room three days ago and spotted Obinna Ekezie conducting his first interview since going down with a torn right Achilles' tendon.

"What are you talking to him for?" said the Maryland coach wryly.

It was a thinly veiled attempt by Williams to lighten the atmosphere that surrounds the fifth-ranked Terps (22-4, 10-3) these days as they continue a stretch drive to the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments.

That drive continues today against Georgia Tech (14-12, 5-8) in a 1: 30 p.m. ACC game.

In just 14 days, Williams and his players will know where they will be seeded and who they will be playing in the first round of one of the most anticipated NCAA tournaments in 16 appearances by the Terps.

Maryland fans and many collegiate basketball experts virtually anointed this a Final Four team the day Steve Francis arrived. They said the high-flying Francis would take the Terps where they had never been -- the Final Four.

Francis and his teammates were given the heavy burden of wiping out in one season all the frustration of many past failures by Maryland teams to make the Final Four.

So many high hopes were often shattered during Lefty Driesell's 17-year reign in which the team reached the Elite Eight twice and the Sweet 16 two times.

And there have been the crushed dreams of the 1990s for Williams and Maryland after three trips to the Sweet 16 ended with losses.

Talk about pressure.

Sometimes Williams just wishes it would all go away.

Not a chance.

Today, the Terps face a Georgia Tech team that is fighting desperately just to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

"If they beat us, it would revitalize their season," said Williams of a Tech team that has lost five of its last six games. "They might get an NCAA berth.

"Georgia Tech plays well at Alexander [Memorial Coliseum, also known as the Thrillerdome]. They played Duke as well there as anybody has played them except Cincinnati."

Top-ranked Duke had to scramble for an 87-79 win over the Yellow Jackets in the dome where coach Bobby Cremins has rolled up an 185-44 record.

Georgia Tech followed the close call against Duke on Feb. 6 with a double-overtime 111-108 win over Florida State nine days ago.

In that victory, the Yellow Jackets' front line of 7-foot Jason Collier and 6-11 Alvin Jones combined for 58 points, 27 rebounds and five blocked shots. Collier scored a career-high 30 points, including four of five from three-point range, and had 10 rebounds.

Jones also racked up a career-high 28 points along with 17 rebounds and four blocks.

Collier, a junior transfer from Indiana, has soared to the top of the ACC scoring race with a 17.8 average entering today's game.

Jones, a shot-blocking sophomore, has risen to third in the nation in shots blocked per game with an average of 3.9. His career average of 4.10 is on pace to break the all-time ACC record of 4.09 by former Clemson standout Tree Rollins.

Jones also averages 12.3 points and a team-leading 9.9 rebounds.

But just when Cremins had visions of the twin towers carrying his team back to the upper echelon of the ACC, the inconsistent play of freshman point guard Tony Akins has surfaced again to drag Tech down with back-to-back losses to Louisville (78-58) and Wake Forest (67-58) entering today's game.

"Louisville was the worst we've played in the last several games," said Cremins. "We didn't have a chance. We were lackadaisical. It's been said many times you have to have a great point guard to be successful in the college game and it's so true."

Cremins seems to have run out of luck at the point guard ever since Stephon Marbury bolted for the NBA after one season in 1996.

Kevin Morris, a 5-11 phenom from New York, followed Marbury to Georgia Tech and was supposed to take his place but couldn't do it.

Morris lasted one season and transferred to Georgia State, and Cremins is still searching for a point guard to follow in the tradition of Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Travis Best and Marbury.

"We lacked some foresight going out and replacing Marbury," said Cremins. "I was thinking Final Four after we went to the Sweet 16 with Stephon. But I didn't blame Stephon for going. I was blaming myself. It hit me in the butt."

Akins was no match for the Maryland pressure defense at Cole Field House Jan. 19 when the Terps ended the game on a 21-5 run to win, 77-62. Akins had six turnovers and hit two of 11 shots from the field.

Tech had to use both Collier and Jones a lot against the Terps' full-court press and it took a toll on their inside play.

Maryland freshman Lonny Baxter used his tenacity and surprising quickness to outplay North Carolina's Brendan Haywood and Kris Lang inside last Saturday. Baxter will be out to do the same today against Collier and Jones.

"Jones and Collier are pretty quick, but we believe we can do some things against them," said the 6-8 Baxter.

Terps today

Opponent: Georgia Tech

Site: Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Atlanta

Time: 1: 30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 9

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